Mega Saiga Deaths – Joe Bobek

DIn mid-May of 2015, a broadcast announced that hundreds of saiga antelopes suddenly died in the Kostanay region of Kazakhstan. Soon after, a wave of similar occurrences were reported all across central Kazakhstan. Fatalities promptly rose from hundreds to thousands, then to tens of thousands, and finally to over a hundred thousand animals. More than 140,000 saigas, about half of the world’s remaining population, mysteriously died over the span of a few days. Researchers are flummoxed by the mysterious cause of death; although it’s almost certainly viral.

eScientists expect that pasteurellosis, a digestive illness, may be the cause of this epizootic.  But the presence of this bacteria in the saigas intestinal tract is natural, so it is unknown what ignited the collapse of their immune systems. Whatever the cause, the result an affliction that has 100% mortality rate for the males, females and calves. It begins with sluggishness and disorientation. The affected animals froth at the mouth and suffer from diarrhea. A few hours later, they become unable to stand and breathe properly. Death soon follows.

In recent decades, saigas have experienced quite a few outbreaks that have resulted in large-scale mortality. They seem to always be just on the verge of extinction. For example, in the 1980s, two thirds of the global population of saigas perished. And as recently as 2010, a third of them were lost. What could possibly be the reason for these almost periodic devastations?

In the past, these strange-looking creatures inhabited lands that stretched from Alaska to as far west as the United Kingdom. Unlike most of the Pleistocene megafauna (the animals we often associate as mammoths and mastodons and saber-tooth cats) that died out due to overhunting by humans, prehistoric saigas were also over-hunted and driven to live in the remote steppe grasslands and semi-arid deserts of central Asia.Saiga historic and current distribution

Despite losing their prehistoric habitats, saigas have become well adapted to their harsh environment which is prone to many dust storms, little to no annual rainfall, and volatile temperatures. They now play a major role in the ecosystem they inhabit. They recycle nutrients through their grazing. They prevent wildfires because they lower the over abundanSce of brush. They also serve as a vital food source for predators; having once even fed poor, rural inhabitants after the collapse of the Soviet Union

Unfortunately, forcing this once global species to exclusive areas has made them  severely homogeneous and especially susceptible to disease. It certainly doesn’t help that a majority of births result in twins. Their condition is similar to the dangers of monoculture. Monocultures are a single type of plant growing in large areas. These conditions make monocultures very vulnerable. One monocrop can be wiped out completely by a single virus, fungus, destructive insect, or other disease. A farmer could lose his entire crop, his entire livelihood, to one microbe. Monoculturalism, while producing enormous amounts of food, only encourages more disease, weeds, and destructive insects. These pests build resistance and easily thrive under the unchanging nature of a monoculture. Seasonally, thousands of saigas migrate during the winter to warmer climates. In the springtime, the mothers universally give birth; they often all give birth as close as within a few days of each other. This unchanging pattern is the perfect conditions for a disease to thrive. Recall the arrival of the boll weevil in the United States in 1892.  A single species of insect decimated the poor, cotton-dependent regions of the United States. The effect was so great that it forced a revolution in southern economics.

Likewise the Saiga face a vetry similar threat in the form of an unknown pathogen. This is unfortunate, as the herd has recovered significantly since the 1990s. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 nearly pushed the saigas to extinction. The collapse of government spiked rural poverty and eliminated the means of protecting the saiga. This resulted in an explosion of hunting and poaching, almost 95% of the population was destroyed. Saigas provided easy meals and their horns became highly valued in Asian medicine (This actually led to the saigas’ extermination in China during the 1960s). Their condition mirrors the historical devastation of our own American bison. The North American species of bison once roamed the grasslands of North America in massive herds. The buffalo began to disappear as they were hunted for food by railroad workers and relocated Indians. Now they reside only in pockets of their once expansive territory.

Perhaps the exact cause of the saiga massive deaths will soon be discovered. But whatever the cause, it is all too apparent that without diversity, an environment is unsustainable.


News articles:

Scientific information and data:

Class resources:

Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth:  Nature’s Role in American History, 3rd edition (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013):  chapter 7.

Lecture notes


9 thoughts on “Mega Saiga Deaths – Joe Bobek

  1. Jenna L.

    Very well written post! I had never even heard of the saiga before, so I learned a lot from this post. You did a great job explaining the history of the saga and giving background information. You also did a very good job connecting this issue to monoculture– a connection that doesn’t seem related, but is very important in explaining possible reasons for this epidemic. The other historical references, such as the bison and the boll weevil, also made this theory much stronger.

    One question I have– will saigas be added to the endangered species list? And are there any ways/ methods of helping them?

  2. Joan

    I think you did a really good job giving background information. I think it’s a really important part of the post because I’m pretty sure nobody has heard of a saiga. I also liked how you organized your sources. I know that that’s not really a comment about your blog post but I thought it was good idea.

  3. awshue

    This was a cool post Joe. I never knew a group of animals could be likened to experiencing monoculture like problems. This is interesting and frightening because if we further fragment species territories this anomaly could start effecting other animals. I wonder what Kazakhstan could do to address this issue.

  4. aciaramitaro

    Really enjoyed reading this one Joe! Very sad to see an expected illness such as this , remove a population. I have heard of many other species and animals in danger of going extinct, but never thought this animal was facing this type of problem. I love the way you were able to make a connection to both the soviet union and the US, very bold. The one question I had when reading this was, is anything being done to protect them? Overall, I loved reading is , great job man

  5. Clairee Putnam Post author

    Joe, this was a fantastic blog full of information and important details that truly bring the issue to light. Each paragraph kept me hooked because it incorporated facts that I had never heard before, including background information on Saiga and the intestinal disease pasteurellosis. It was fascinating to learn of the fast moving death toll among the saiga species. It truly opened my eyes to the tragic effects that a monoculture can produce. Along with Jenna, I am curious to know whether or not they will be moved to the endangered species list.

  6. christian smith

    Joe, very interesting and informative blog. It was shocking to me that a group of animals could be likened to experience monoculture like problems. I also was unaware of what even a saiga was but you did a very good job filling me in. Great post!

  7. Sarah Bartlett

    Hi Joe, your article was shocking to me and extremely sad. I cannot believe that this has not been bigger news. It is unbelievable how quickly we are losing species on earth. No wonder this time period is being called the 6th mass extinction. Everyday species are disappearing from the earth and biodiversity is decreasing. It is so sad that humans are the cause of the quick decline of this beautiful animal. Not only do they have intrinsic value, they also play a major role in the ecosystem as you stated. Many people do not realize how important biodiversity is to the success of our planet. You articulated your message very clearly in your blog entry and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  8. katieneyland

    I really enjoyed reading this post! I was very surprised by this bizarre event. It blew me aways that the disease that struck the population had a 100% mortality rate and wiped out half the world population of Saiga. I had also had never heard of this animal before so it was nice to read about something I had no previous knowledge on. Your connection to monoculture is very interesting and unexpected. Is there any biological reason that the Saigas mostly give birth to twins? There are many other species in the world that are similar to the Saiga in there reproduction and population habits but we do not always see mass death like this. Do you know why this is?

  9. Sarah McVann Post author

    This was interesting to read about, especially since i have never heard of this animal before. They way you connected the Saiga to monoculture was a very interesting way of integrating class material. It helped me to better understand what you were writing about also. Hopefully this animal get the protection it deserves soon.


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